How will a divorce or separation affect my credit?
Here are some tips for handling the credit aspects of divorce, both in the planning stages and afterward.
Cancel All Joint Accounts. First, it is important to cancel all joint accounts immediately once you know you are going to obtain a divorce.
Creditors have the right to seek payment from either party on a joint credit card or other credit account, no matter which party actually incurred the bill. If you allow your name to remain on joint accounts with your ex-spouse, you are also responsible for the bills.
Some credit contracts require that you immediately pay the outstanding balance in full if you close an account. If so, try to get the creditor to have the balance transferred to separate accounts.
If Your Spouse’s Poor Credit Affects You. If your spouse’s poor credit hurts your credit record, you may be able to separate yourself from the spouse’s information on your credit report. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act requires a creditor to take into account any information showing that the credit history being considered does not reflect your own. If for instance, you can show that accounts you shared with your spouse were opened by him or her before your marriage and that he or she paid the bills, you may be able to convince the creditor that the harmful information relates to your spouse’s credit record, not yours.
In practice, it is difficult to prove that the credit history under consideration doesn’t reflect your own, and you may have to be persistent.
Women: Maintain Your Own Credit-Before You Need It. If a woman divorces, and changes her name on an account, lenders may review her application or credit file to see whether her qualifications alone meet their credit standards. They may ask her to reapply, although the account remains open.
Maintaining credit in your own name avoids this inconvenience. It can also make it easier to preserve your own, separate, credit history. Further, should you need credit in an emergency, it will be available.
Do not use only your spouse’s name, for example, “Mrs. John Wilson” for credit purposes.
Tip: Check your credit report if you haven’t done so recently. Make sure the accounts you share are being reported in your name as well as your spouse’s. If not, and you want to use your spouse’s credit history to build your own, write to the creditor and request the account be reported in both names.
Find out if there is any inaccurate or incomplete information in your file. If so, write to the credit bureau and ask them to correct it. The credit bureau must confirm the data within a reasonable time period, and let you know when they have corrected the mistake.
If you used your spouse’s accounts, but never co-signed for them, ask to be added on as jointly liable for some of the major credit cards. Once you have several accounts listed as references on your credit record, apply for a department store card, or even a Visa or MasterCard, in your own name.
If you held accounts jointly and they were opened before 1977 (in which case they may have been reported only in your husband’s name), point them out and tell the creditor to consider them as your credit history also. The creditor cannot require your spouse’s or former spouse’s signature to access his credit file if you are using his information to qualify for credit.
Tip: A secured credit card is a fairly quick, easy way to get a major credit card if you do not have a credit history.
Your credit rating is affected by a number of different factors, some obvious and others few consumers are aware of. The following factors are discussed below:
- Whether you have a credit card or use another person’s credit card
- Whether you have a bank checking or savings account
- Where you live
- Your age
- Your debt-income ratio
- Whether you have declared bankruptcy or have had “charge-offs” to your account
- Whether you are delinquent in any child support payments
- Whether you have “too much” credit available
One of the best things you can have on a credit report is a bank credit card– such as a Visa, MasterCard or Discover card -that has been paid on time over a specified period in the past. In a credit scoring system, a good bank card reference usually carries more weight than an American Express card or a department store card.
If you are an authorized user (someone who has permission to use a credit card, but is not legally liable for the bills) on someone else’s account, the payment history will likely be reported in your credit file, but you won’t be able to rely on it to help you build your own credit rating. Usually, it will neither help you nor hurt you when you apply for a loan.
A checking or savings account will usually enhance your credit rating. Some banks give you extra points in applying for their credit card if you have a checking or savings account with them. In fact, some banks also give discounts on loan rates when you hold other accounts with them.
Many creditors give a higher score to those who have lived at the same address for at least two years. Others give extra points just for living in the same area for two years or more.
Creditors may take into account your geographic location in scoring your length of time at one address. If you live in a city, where people move more often, the length of time at your address will probably count less than if you live in the country.
If your address is a post office box, you may find yourself turned down for credit. To fight fraud, some creditors screen out applicants whose addresses indicate commercial offices, mail drops or prisons.
Since post office boxes or rural delivery boxes are commonplace in rural areas, a lender may issue a card to that address while rejecting applicants with a P.O. Box in a large city.
People who own their homes usually earn a higher score than renters.
If a lender’s credit experience shows that people in a certain age group have a better record of paying their bills than people of other ages, that lender may, legally, give a higher score to the better-paying age group.
However, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), a federal law intended to prevent discrimination in lending, does not allow lenders to discriminate against people age 62 or over. The ECOA requires creditors using a scoring system to give those aged 62 and older an age-factor score at least as high as the best score given to anyone under age 62.
Some creditors look at your “debt/income ratio” to determine whether you qualify for credit and how much credit you qualify for.
To find your debt/income ratio, total up your monthly payments on all bills. Then, divide these payments by your monthly gross income (before tax). This is your debt/income ratio.
If it’s less than 28 percent, you should have no trouble getting a loan (and can consider yourself successful at managing your debt and maintaining a good credit rating). If it falls between 28 percent and 35 percent, you have what’s considered high debt, and you may find it difficult to obtain some loans. If your debt/income ratio is 35 percent or more, you will probably not be able to get additional credit. More importantly, you are potentially in financial jeopardy.
Keep in mind that these are general guidelines. Some large card issuers will accept debt ratios as high as 40-45 percent. Others compare your net (after-tax) income to your debts to determine your debt ratio.
Tip: In determining your debt/income ratio, do not include payments for your mortgage, utility bills, doctor bills or other items that do not appear on your credit report: The creditor will not look at these.
If you should incur unexpected expenses, get ill, lose your job, or get divorced, you could find yourself unable to meet your obligations. Consider seeking credit counseling through a local non-profit consumer credit counseling service.
Most lenders (but not all) will automatically reject you if your application or credit file indicates a bankruptcy. Both types of bankruptcy — Chapter 13 (the wage-earner’s plan under which all debts are eventually repaid) and Chapter 7 (straight bankruptcy) — remain in your credit files for ten years. Few creditors draw any distinction between the two types, so you don’t get any “credit” for having repaid your bills using Chapter 13.
In addition to the bankruptcy itself remaining on your report for ten years, each separate account that was discharged through bankruptcy can be reported in your file for up to seven years.
“Charge-offs” (accounts written off as “un collectible”) and “collection accounts” (accounts sent either to the creditor’s own collection department or to an outside collection agency) are extremely negative.
Note: If an account that has been charged-off (other than for bankruptcy), the creditor will usually turn it over to a collection agency, which will then attempt to collect. It then becomes a “collection account” for reporting purposes.
Tip: If you pay the charged-off amount, make sure the creditor updates the account as a “paid charge-off.”
Tip: In exchange for paying off a collection account, you may be able to negotiate with the creditor or collection agency the permanent removal of the negative information from your credit bureau files. However, lenders are under no obligation to make such an agreement.
Delinquent child support frequently appear on credit reports. In 1984, Congress amended the federal Child Support Enforcement (CSE) legislation to require more routine reporting of delinquent payments.
State child support enforcement agencies must report overdue child support to a credit bureau that requests such information, as long as the amount exceeds $1,000. CSE agencies may also report delinquencies of any amount on a voluntary basis.
Before a CSE agency reports your delinquent child support debts to a credit bureau, it must tell you that it is going to do so and provide you with information on how to dispute the delinquency.
You may be turned down for a loan because you have too much available credit. When creditors evaluate your application for credit, they ascertain whether, if you were to use all your available credit, you would be over your head.
Accounts you no longer use, or have paid off, can count against you if they are listed as “open” on a credit report. The act of paying off a revolving account does not, in itself, result in its being “closed” in the eyes of creditors. Further, some creditors do not report to credit bureaus the fact that accounts are closed.
Tip: Every time you close an account, ask the creditor to report it as “closed by consumer” to all credit bureaus to which the account has previously been reported. If a closed account appears on your credit report as open, dispute the entry with the credit bureau.
In determining whether you have too much available credit, creditors usually consider:
- The number of accounts you hold. As noted above, having too many credit card accounts can count against you.
- The total credit you have available. Having too much available credit can count against you.
Conversely, being at or near the limit on your credit cards (i.e., with little available credit) can also count against you if it suggests that you have incurred too heavy a debt load.